Ask Umbra: What should I do with used tissues, old mixtapes, and rage against the greens?
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Q. What is the most environmentally friendly way to dispose of used tissues? I usually use a handkerchief, but I’ve had a very bad cold for four weeks. I try to put the tissues in the toilet, but my wife says I should put them in the trash. We have a properly maintained septic system, and the company that pumps it uses the outflow for approved compost on fields elsewhere in Maine. I maintain that they’re better reused as compost, rolling that carbon back into the soil. My wife maintains that it would be better to put them in the landfill, as they are reported in some circles to put undue stress on septic systems.
Chebeague Island, Maine
A. Dearest Bob,
My, my — a month is a long time to spend nursing a terrible cold. I do hope you’re feeling better, and not only because of the mountain of icky tissues you’ve been creating. You’re right that a reusable, washable handkerchief is the best way to go here, but as you note, sometimes the nose has other plans.
In the interest of domestic tranquility, allow me to propose a third option for you and your wife: Skip the middleman and compost those tissues yourselves. Tissue is paper, after all, which fits nicely into a balanced compost pile’s browns (dry, carbon-rich materials, as opposed to wet, nitrogen-rich greens). And don’t worry about the unsightly deposit contained within — that’s also biodegradable organic material, and the cold virus won’t survive more than a couple of days outside its warm and luxurious host (that’s you, Bob). Note: While nose-blowing tissues get the green light, Leanne Spaulding, director of membership and communications for the U.S Composting Council, told me it’s best to toss any tissues soiled with blood or other potentially disease-carrying bodily secretions. “We haven’t seen any colds transmitted through backyard composting, but for safety’s sake, we encourage people not to go any further,” she says.
Try not to overdo it, though: If you’re generating enough tissues to throw your compost pile’s green-to-brown ratio wildly out of whack, you may want to divert the overflow. And here I’m going to give the edge to your wife and say the trash may be the proper place. Generally, experts don’t recommend flushing facial tissues because they might not break down as quickly as septic-safe toilet paper. Then again, there’s no reason why you couldn’t blow your nose into septic-approved TP. See, you can both be right!
In any case, do your best to reduce the overall amount of paper you’re using — perhaps you can start with your trusty handkerchiefs and bring in tissues to pinch hit when necessary? Go for recycled tissues whenever possible. And think about a visit to the doctor, OK, Bob? I’m a little worried about you.
Q. What is the best way to dispose of (or recycle) countless old recorded cassette tapes? I also have sets of tapes – inside plastic cases – for language learning taking up space on my bookshelves. I hate to think of all this plastic going to a landfill.
New Kensington, Pa.
A. Dearest Arlene,
Sounds like your days of recording Portuguese pop music are over (on cassette, anyway). Good news: Those nightmares of plastic-clogged landfills don’t have to come true. There are ways to responsibly rid oneself of old tunes en route to the digital evolution.
As we’ve discussed before, one woman’s trash could be another one’s analog treasure. So I’d start by asking around to see if a local thrift shop, school, library, or old-school mix-tape maker might want them. You might also ply your tapes on Craigslist or Freecycle to see who bites. You never know — I can’t be the only one who still has a ’90s-era vintage boom box.
If that doesn’t work, consider upcycling those cassettes. I’ve seen some crafty types create lamps, wallets, and purses out of old cartridges. Or chairs and chandeliers. Or coat racks and belt buckles …
And if all else fails, there’s always recycling. Not in your curbside bin – cassettes and their cousins, VHS tapes, are too difficult to recycle for that – but by mail to e-waste recycler like GreenDisk (which also accepts cases, by the way). It’ll cost you a small fee to ship them in, but I’ll bet you’ll find it worth the price.
Q. With all the articles that you print, it would be best if we did not wash ourselves or eat any food, stop breathing, and we will save the environment.
A. Dearest Walter,
Well, that’s just common sense. Talk about low impact!
But seriously, Walter, of course human life leaves an ecological footprint. We can’t help that. What we can do is think critically about all the choices that make up our lives, from which soap to use to what food to eat, and pick the ones that do the most good (or least damage, if you’re a glass-half-empty type).
Oh, and breathe easy. That’s at least one thing we can do without worrying about wrecking the planet.